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Tampa’s budget, collaboration praised at City Hall

The unanimous vote on Mayor Castor’s budget came amid effusive praise for her administration. Chairman Orlando Gudes, a retired police officer, credited a police culture in City Hall for its efficiency.
John Bennett, Mayor Jane Castor's chief of staff, was widely credited Thursday with creating a smooth budget process that met the needs of all of the city's seven council districts.
John Bennett, Mayor Jane Castor's chief of staff, was widely credited Thursday with creating a smooth budget process that met the needs of all of the city's seven council districts. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Sep. 29

TAMPA — When the biggest criticism was a request to slightly rewrite Mayor Jane Castor’s introduction to the city’s 369-page document detailing its $1.8 billion budget, its unanimous approval by council members Tuesday evening shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

This city has seen its share of last-minute budget drama in the recent past, including standoffs with unions over insurance issues along with multiple votes and subsequent hard feelings over a tough vote on the 2017 millage rate hike.

Even Mayor Castor’s first budget in 2019 had a showdown over the controversial program to turn highly-treated reclaimed water into drinking water, forcing the mayor to put the program on the back burner.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor forced to scrap 'toilet to tap' in budget fight

On Tuesday, though, council member Bill Carlson asked that the mayor’s budget overview be rewritten slightly to highlight the role of residents and council members in crafting the budget, flush with $80.4 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars.

Chief of Staff John Bennett and Chief Financial Officer Dennis Rogero informed Carlson that the change had already been made.

That symbolic tweak was emblematic of a budget season in Florida’s third-largest city that worked as it should, said John Dingfelder, who also served on council from 2003 to 2010.

“This particular budget is one of the best that I’ve worked with in regard to working amicably with the mayor and the administration,” Dingfelder said. “A lot of time we wrestle and bicker with the administration, and we really haven’t done that this year, and I think it’s great.”

Council members who had asked for more staffing praised what Castor did provide; 30 new firefighters amid several dozen new city jobs. They praised Castor’s agreement to use bond revenue to finish Vila Brothers Park in West Tampa. And they touted the money in the budget for the fire department to plan for further expansion to keep a booming city safe.

Just a few members of the public spoke for or against the budget, also a departure from years past. And those speakers, from the Tampa Bay Community Network, also joined in the verbal high-fives, thanking the city for including the video production training program in the budget for the first time in three years. Their requests for more funding were couched in gratitude.

Chairman Orlando Gudes, a retired police officer, said Castor’s background as police chief along with Bennett, a former assistant chief, were the key to a drama-free process. He credited a police leadership culture at City Hall for its efficiency and pragmatism.

“It’s not that the mayor is soft,” said Gudes, alluding to criticism he’d heard. He didn’t elaborate, but he appeared to have some of Castor’s predecessors in mind.

“If those other mayors were here they would have a difficult time with this council,” Gudes said. “A system has been put in place. I think it’s a good system. ... The system seems to be working because everyone is getting their needs.”

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Most council members voiced high praise for Bennett, who they said worked to deliver on their requests.

“Chief Bennett always listens. He’s responsive to the point where I feel bad,” council member Guido Maniscalco said.

In August, council members had struck a different tone on budget issues, saying Castor needed to commit to building two new fire stations and hire more staff, especially in the city’s housing department.

Related: Tampa City Council members want more fire stations and city staff

Castor made small compromises, notably to Maniscalco’s strong advocacy to finish Vila Brothers Park for $1.7 million, but held firm on her desire not to “break open” the budget she delivered to council members in early August.

The budget goes into effect at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The city’s millage rate remains unchanged, but residents will see an increase in their property tax bills as property values have increased over the past year. Council members declined to “roll back” the city’s 6.2076 millage rate to account for the robust real estate market.